Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Scanners (1981)

Horror and science fiction are two genres that can mesh very well. ‘Alien’ (1979) and ‘The Thing’ (1982) are two of the very finest examples of the calibre of filmmaking that has contributed to this hybrid. From this generation of these films' respective directors Ridley Scott and John Carpenter is David Cronenberg the Canadian filmmaker who became the main innovator of body horror breaking out with the low-budget independently produced cult hits ‘Shivers’ (1975), ‘Rabid’ (1977) and ‘The Brood’ (1979). In 1981 between the releases of ‘Alien’ and ‘The Thing’ Cronenberg would take a break from all things bodily repulsive and would himself blend horror and sci-fi into an effective mix. Albeit nowhere near as influentially as Scott and Carpenter, but still 'Scanners' is one hell of a hugely entertaining ride that earned multiple viewings from me growing up. It was the director’s first major success becoming a huge box-office smash that would enable him to graduate on to the mainstream of Hollywood major studio moviemaking. 

Existing in the very near futuristic setting of 1985 are Scanners. These are people with immensely powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities. A weaponry and security systems company named ConSec captures an out of control homeless Scanner - Cameron Vale played by the very wooden Stephan Lack. He has become so unstable with his powers due to his inability to cope with the overload of hearing the thoughts of everybody surrounding him, which has resulted in his derelict. ConSec are aware of Vale and they know that his scanner abilities are well above average. During his confinement in ConSec, he meets Dr Paul Ruth (the late great Patrick McGoohan) the head of the company’s Scanners division who injects Vale with a drug called Ephemerol, which suppresses his overwhelming scanner powers and enables him to control his abilities at will.

Meanwhile at a ConSec press conference in the film’s most famous scene renegade scanner Darryl Revok (the ever brilliant Michael Ironside in full on villain mode) who is hell bent on world domination brutally murders one of the company’s very own scanners by making his head explode when volunteering for a demonstration. This shows off Dick Smith’s brilliant SFX work that still stands today. Revok escapes killing five people with his scanner powers doing so with much creepily menacing glee. Ruth sends out the now in control Vale to infiltrate the scanners’ underworld to find Revok. However, there is a threat within ConSec in the form of its new head of security Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane).

‘Scanners’ works very effectively as a conventional action science fiction thriller rather than a horror. Its narrative structure consists of a plot containing exciting sequences of car chases and shootouts with intriguing industrial espionage and conspiracy. These devices drive the story forward resulting in a stunning revelation in the movie’s climax followed by an effects laden showdown between Vale and Revok in an epic scanners battle. This is where the horror comes into play. It is in its displays of gruesomely gory set-pieces that we see the film’s elements of shocking cinema. David Cronenberg has never shied away from showing violence always explicitly depicting it in extreme visceral intensity. It is even abundantly apparent in his later character study works of ‘A History of Violence’ (2005) and ‘Eastern Promises’ (2007). In ‘Scanners’ he neglects the sexuality of it from his previous exploitive endeavours that crowned him king of physical body terror as it is the power of the mind over the body. The writer and director took his inspiration from a chapter in the novel ‘Naked Lunch’ by William S. Burrough’s that detailed how an organization of hostile telepaths called “senders” were trying to take over the world. Cronenberg would later adapt the book in 1991.

The movie’s weak link comes in the form of its protagonist. While the character of Cameron Vale is very likable, Lack’s performance is stiffer than Gary Glitter at a children’s birthday party. Not a trained actor and instead a painter by craft it really shows as if he is reading from cue cards. He really does Lack the talent (pun painfully intended). Jennifer O’Neill playing his love interest fellow scanner Kim Obrist fares little better and their chemistry is non-existent. Because of the poor acting in its leads ‘Scanners’ really does not have that zap of energy when it comes to its pivotal scenes. Although help comes from the supporting roles in the more than capable hands of McGoohan whose performance is emotionally rewarding and Ironside who is one of the most underrated character actors of his generation. He is the real scene-stealer here eating up the screen with his maniacal charm. In addition, props are due to Dane in his secondary villain role as Keller as he is coldly convincing. Howard Shore’s musical score is also noteworthy as it is robust and rousing. Shore would go on to score ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.

Due to a severe case of the nostalgia bug, I might be being a tad bit biased but this is on a more intellectual note a rocking cool flick. Being a 13-year-old boy when I first saw the film the sight of a man using psychic powers to blow up another man’s head is just the ultimate in awesomeness. After repeated viewings, I must have worn out the videotape I used to record the movie. While films like ‘Alien’ and ‘The Thing’ get it just right with the perfect balance of horror and science fiction ‘Scanners’ is a sci-fi thriller actioner with some stylistic horror touches. David Cronenberg would however get that perfect balance in 1986 with his masterful reimagining of the ‘The Fly’ applying his auteur signature of body horror. This time with Jeff Goldblum’s rotting flesh as a metaphor for the AIDS virus. 

I can also recommend the first sequel ‘Scanners II: The New Order’. It was released a decade after the first without Cronenberg’s involvement. It is not as good a movie but it is certainly a worthy follow-up. Best forget about the rest of the franchise though. The original ‘Scanners’ is great stuff and a must see.

**** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2013 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. Stiffer than Gary Glitter at a children’s birthday party... ha, ha...

    I revisited Scanners a few months ago, a film I had not seen in years. I always considered this a minor Cronenberg work and while I enjoyed seeing the film again, for me this must remain a lesser film in the director's cannon. I think Cronenberg was making a strategic move towards the mainstream with Scanners - there's less of the rawness of the earlier films, and it all feels less personal than The Brood and Videodrome. Cronenberg was obviously playing with a bigger budget and the film has some big production set pieces - a van crashing into a record store, and some explosive pyrotechnics, but they feel strangely out of place. Having said all that, the film remains an enjoyable if occasionally ludicrous thriller, it moves at a fair lick with some muscular action and the scanner grudge match at the climax is well done...

    1. I agree that of my favourite Cronenberg films 'Scanners' is not the strongest but I love it none the less. It's a movie in which its commercial success allowed him to leap onto the mainstream stage and make some of his very best work due to having more resources at his disposal with bigger budgets i.e. 'Videodrome', 'The Fly' etc. In this respect, it is a defining career moment for the director.